Hulu Climbs Above 20 Million Subscribers, Inks Major DreamWorks Animation Deal

Upfront news includes 'Good Doctor' licensing pact, 'Handmaid's Tale' renewal, plans to start running live TV ads in Q2


Hulu is trying to flex its muscles and prove it’s bulking up to be a top contender in the streaming TV ring.

The company has now surpassed 20 million U.S. subscribers, Hulu announced at its 2018 upfront event Tuesday in New York. The number, an 18% increase since the end of 2017, includes both Hulu’s live-TV package and standalone on-demand service.

In something of a coup in its battle with Netflix, Hulu announced a multiyear deal with DreamWorks Animation, giving it exclusive U.S. streaming rights for the studio’s library titles, new releases starting in 2019, and new original series to bow in 2020.

The pact is Hulu’s largest deal for kids and family programming to date. DWA has had a five-year relationship with Netflix, which had committed to spending $1.5 billion with the studio under their initial 2013 deal; however, the Hulu deal doesn’t mean the Netflix-DWA relationship is ending. Last month, DreamWorks Animation Television announced a “Fast & Furious” animated series is in the works for Netflix, as part of a extension of their deal to focus on animated adaptations of Universal Pictures film franchises.

Also on the content front, Hulu clinched an exclusive streaming deal for “The Good Doctor,” ABC’s breakout new primetime drama of the 2017-18 season. To no one’s surprise, Hulu renewed “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a third season, bringing back the buzzy, award-winning dystopian drama series. Hulu also announced series orders for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” from Mindy Kaling and “Ramy,” a Muslim-American comedy from Ramy Youssef and Jerrod Carmichael.

Unlike Netflix, Hulu has a story to sell to advertisers. Hulu said it will begin selling dynamically inserted ads in the Hulu With Live TV service starting later in the second quarter of 2018, coming a year after it launched the $40-per-month bundle. And it announced it will offer the industry’s first ad-supported downloadable content, slated to launch with the 2018-19 TV season.

True, Hulu’s 20 million subscribers are still less than half the domestic base of Netflix, which tallied 56.7 million U.S. streaming subs at the end of Q1. But Hulu believes its combo of live TV and streaming VOD gives it a unique position in the market.

“Hulu is the complete TV experience for consumers, offering both live and on-demand programming and more consumer choice than ever before,” CEO Randy Freer said at the event. Hulu’s upfront, part of the 2018 Digital Content NewFronts series, was held at the recently redubbed Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden after the streamer bought the naming rights in March.

In a new feature sure to delight some Hulu customers, the service later this month will let users to no longer show recommendations for content they aren’t interested in, head of experience Ben Smith announced. The example he used on stage: “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

Over the past year, time spent watching Hulu has grown by more than 60%. The No. 1 show on Hulu last year, as the company previously revealed in December, was “South Park” — viewers watched 135 million hours of the irreverent animated comedy in 2017, chief marketing officer Kelly Campbell said. That’s been boosted by the “virtual” pay-TV service, which offers 50-plus channels including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in most markets. In addition, Hulu said that 78% of viewing on the service takes place on internet-connected TVs.

Hulu’s DreamWorks Animation deal stands to be another carrot to lure new customers. Under the agreement, Hulu will become the exclusive U.S. streaming home to future theatrical releases from the studio beginning in 2019, including upcoming franchise films “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” “The Boss Baby 2” and “Trolls 2,” in the pay-one window (which historically has gone to premium cable networks). It will also expand Hulu’s film lineup in the coming years with a catalog of library films from the studio including “Shrek,” “Shrek 2” and “Shark Tale.”

Furthermore, Hulu will be the home to a slate of new, original series based on characters from DreamWorks Animation’s franchises and upcoming feature films. DreamWorks Animation Television will develop and produce the series, expected to hit Hulu beginning in 2020.

“The Good Doctor” comes to Hulu under a deal with Sony Pictures Television, joining Hulu’s lineup of exclusive licensed content. The agreement covers the full first season of the series, which is now streaming on Hulu. Future episodes will become available the day after broadcast on ABC. Last year, Hulu acquired exclusive SVOD rights to NBC’s “This Is Us,” the No. 1 new broadcast drama of the 2016-17 season.

ABC recently renewed “The Good Doctor” for a second season, after it became the network’s most-watched freshman series in 13 years. The show stars Freddie Highmore (“Bates Motel”) as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome who joins the staff of a prestigious hospital.

Hulu also touted its slate of upcoming originals. Those include “Castle Rock,” Hulu’s second project from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King set to premiere on July 25; “Catch-22,” from George Clooney and starring Kyle Chandler; “The First,” from Beau Willimon and starring Sean Penn; and “Little Fires Everywhere,” from Reese Witherspoon and Kerri Washington. On Wednesday, it announced “Into the Dark” as the name of the previously announced horror anthology series from Blumhouse Television, with feature-length episodes to debut monthly starting in October.

At the event, Hulu brought out talent involved in its upcoming originals. Those included Mindy Kaling, who noted it was her fourth straight Hulu upfront, after previously appearing to pitch her sitcom “The Mindy Project,” which the streamer picked up for three seasons it was canceled at Fox.

Kaling said the 10-episode “Four Weddings and a Funeral” series will feature a diverse cast — Pakistani people, black people, and old people (but not “too many” old people), adding, “Don’t worry, there will be plenty of white people, too.” She also took shots at Netflix — “Hulu doesn’t just drown you with 12 episodes of a show all at once, and then an Adam Sandler movie every other week” — and Amazon, saying that Hulu “isn’t an add-on from the place you buy tampons and garden hoses.” The jokes drew laughs from the crowd, meant to convey Hulu’s posture as the scrappy underdog against the two much larger, global powerhouses.

In the advertising-specific portion of Hulu’s pitch, the company said it will introduce the dynamic ad-insertion capabilities for Hulu With Live TV across select cable networks in Q2 before rolling out to additional channels over the coming months.

Since launching the live TV package in May 2017, Hulu has steadily added local stations to now offer almost 600 across the U.S. But other than adding HBO and Cinemx as premium options, the Hulu With Live TV national lineup hasn’t made major changes. Hulu carries networks from its parent companies — Comcast/NBCUniversal, Disney, 21st Century Fox and Time Warner (Turner) — as well as CBS, A+E Networks, and Scripps.

Also at the upfront, Hulu announced that it has selected Nielsen’s Digital Ad Ratings (DAR) over-the-top video measurement service as its “currency of business” across the platform. Hulu’s advertisers can use DAR to measure, guarantee and report campaign audience delivery across all desktop, mobile and connected devices.

Meanwhile, Hulu’s forthcoming ad-supported download feature will let subscribers watch TV shows and movies on mobile devices — without needing an internet connection. For advertisers, it will represent a brand-new environment for targeting “engaged viewers who love the experience of watching television, wherever they may be,” said Peter Naylor, Hulu’s SVP of ad sales.

Finally, the company announced four new ad-metrics partnerships. Hulu will now offer attribution across the auto category with IHS Markit’s Polk Campaign Measurement Solutions and in the retail category with Nielsen Buyer Insights. Hulu also will deliver an expanded offering for consumer packaged goods brands with IRI’s attribution solution. Under a deal with Experian, Hulu’s advertisers will be able to cross-reference their customer data with Hulu’s first-party data to better track sales growth on the platform.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Netflix was ending its relationship with DreamWorks Animation. In fact, the two companies extended their partnership last month, with a focus on animated series adapted from Universal Pictures film franchises.